Interview with John Collins - from Sydney Opera House program
What attracted you the idea of staging The Great Gatsby?
John Collins: It was a novel set in early- twentieth-century New York City and that was the original attraction. I read the book for the first time in 1999 and Steve Bodow and I recognized a parallel between the reckless exuberance and abundance of new money in the 1920s. It was the height of the dot-com boom and the New York of 1999 was looking a lot like the New York of 1925.
I became very interested in staging it because I fell in love with Fitzgerald’s style of writing. The book was so lyrical and yet so efficient. It seemed as though he hadn’t wasted a single word.
At what point did you decide that you would not adapt the book for the stage but use every word of Fitzgerald’s text?
JC: At first, we did set out to adapt it, but even at an early stage, cutting narration felt problematic. Fitzgerald’s observations of the characters (through Nick, the narrator) were so concise and witty that I immediately felt an impulse to keep them. Fortunately, with a first person narrator in the middle of all the scenes we were working on, the rationale was built in: narration could be spoken by the actor playing Nick.
But once we decided to include some narration a nagging question still hung in the air: How do we decide what narration stays and what narration gets cut? Clearly Fitzgerald had made careful decisions about how to order his prose, when to interrupt dialogue with narration and when to let it flow from one speaker to another. The novel struck me as perfectly constructed and furthermore, it was the writing itself – not the characters or the story – that I wanted to put on stage.
Finally, almost out of frustration, I proposed that we not cut any narration.
The audacity of the idea was irresistible. I had come to realize that having a good problem to solve was the best starting point for me as a director and for this new piece. I guessed already then that there would be something compelling for audiences in the commitment that this represented and it was a great challenge for the company.
How did you approach such a monumental task?
JC : I got together with Scott Shepherd, who had played Nick in the workshop, and James Urbaniak, who had played Gatsby to experiment with the novel in our spare time. We used a small office as a kind of found set. It opened into a larger room so I could sit in the larger room and the opening into the smaller office became an impromptu proscenium. The office provided a wonderfully cluttered and richly detailed setting and I imagined that Scott and James were its employees. Scott’s character, we decided, would have an unusual obsession with reading The Great Gatsby aloud. We staged scenes of James coming in and catching him reading when he was supposed to be working. We decided that James (whose character would be Scott’s character’s boss) would occasionally decide to join the game and become other characters. Watching this happen against the backdrop of this cluttered little office was exciting and I began to realize that if the purpose of the business they were conducting was mysterious, the office could become a charged and meaningful space.
I wanted to see Scott’s character come to work and find a reason to start reading. That led to the idea of his computer not working properly. Once he discovered the book, he would still get interrupted with odd little work tasks from time to time; but these were second nature to him and his primary focus would be on a ragged copy of The Great Gatsby he’d found in his desk. We cut from Chapter One to Chapter Four and had James’ character interrupt Scott’s reading by suddenly demanding in Gatsby’s words, “Look here, old sport, what’s your opinion of me anyhow?” By creating a bit of ambiguity – was he speaking as his office character or as Gatsby – we bridged the world of the novel and the world of our mysterious little office.
What do you think the production gives audiences that they wouldn’t get by reading the book?
JC : What we offer is a parallel experience, an event enriched by the book and one that, hopefully, enriches the book in some small way by bringing it to life. It is a piece about a strange group of people who are temporarily haunted by the novel and its characters; it is not a definitive imagining of the story of the novel. The point of presenting it against such a drab background and of having the book itself present throughout is to preserve the integrity of the novel. We’re not offering, as some would, an “official stage version” of this great work. We are staging an encounter with it.
I want the audience to experience how each of these forms, live performance and novel-writing, are distinct and irreplaceable. I mean to create an experience of the two colliding in real time and space and I don’t imagine that one comes out on top. Rather, I see them playing to a friendly draw, with each illuminating the other in the process.
PROGRAM NOTES from American Repertory Theatre program
Compiled by Jenna Clark Embrey, A.R.T. Literary Intern
On The Great Gatsby
“It is a heavenly book, the most rare thing in the world.” —Jean Cocteau
“The Great Gatsby is one of the three perfect books I go back to. I wasn’t able to fully comprehend the novel when I first read it in high school in Sacramento. To really understand the book, you have to know about the East, about what it means to buck up against the East.” —Joan Didion
“Fitzgerald saw our American world with clearer eyes than any of his contemporaries.” —Tobias Wolff
“In Fitzgerald’s work there is a thrilling sense of knowing exactly where one is—the city, the resort, the hotel, the decade, and the time of day.” —John Cheever
“The Great Gatsby is incomparably the best piece of work you have done. Evidences of careful workmanship are on every page. The thing is well managed, and has a fine surface.” —H.L. Mencken, in a letter to Fitzgerald
“The Great Gatsby has interested and excited me more than any new novel I have seen, either English or American, for a number of years...In fact, it seems to me the first step that American fiction has taken since Henry James...” —T.S. Eliot
The above quotes were taken from New Essays on The Great Gatsby, edited by Matthew Joseph Bruccoli (Cambridge University Press, 1985)
“[Nick Carraway] is both stage manager and chorus, recreating situations in all their actuality, and at the same time commenting upon them. Sometimes he even devises the action—contrives the circumstances by which the actors are brought together on the stage: it is he who arranges the reunion of Gatsby and Daisy.” —Brian Way, “The Great Gatsby,” Modern Critical Interpretations of The Great Gatsby
“Although there are fine-tuned differences and distinctions among all of the principals, there is one common bond. They are one and all outsiders.” —George Garrett, “Fire and Freshness: A Matter of Style in The Great Gatsby”
“Reading it now for the seventh or eighth time, I am more convinced than ever not merely that The Great Gatsby is Fitzgerald’s masterwork but that it is the American masterwork, the finest work of fiction by any of this country’s writers.” —Jonathan Yardley, “ ‘Gatsby’ the Greatest of Them All,” published on January 2, 2007 in The washington Post
“Fitzgerald’s work captures the evaporating memory of the American Eden while connecting it to the advent of the New World of smartness and thuggery and corruption. It was his rite of passage; it is our bridge to the time before “dreams” were slogans. He wanted to call it Among the Ashheaps and Millionaires—thank heaven that his editor, Maxwell Perkins, talked him out of it. It was nearly entitled just plain Gatsby. It remains “the great” because it confronts the defeat of youth and beauty and idealism, and finds the defeat unbearable, and then turns to face the defeat unflinchingly. With The Great Gatsby, American letters grew up.” —Christopher Hitchens, “The Road to West Egg,” published in Vanity Fair, May 2000
“The core of Gatsby’s tragedy is not only that he lived by dreams, but that the woman and the class and the way of life of which he dreamed— that life of the rich which the novel so ruthlessly exposes—fell so far short of the scope of his imagination.” —Brian Way, “The Great Gatsby,” Modern Critical Interpretations of The Great Gatsby